If there is one sector that understands both the beauty and brutality of our environment, it is agriculture. The forces of nature, combined with the spread of several diseases, have dealt agricultural stakeholders several large knocks over the last decade. Water scarcity is its latest, and arguably most devastating.
A lot has been said about the agriculture sector’s use of water during this extremely difficult drought period. The drought, the worst our province has seen in 100 years, is not an “us and them” problem. It’s just an “us” problem, because no matter which way you look at it, we’re in this together.
The drought impacts everyone and all sectors of the economy, but the agricultural sector is the only part of the economy that very early on had its water use officially curtailed. This is also the only sector of the economy that uses its water allocation rights to source financing. We’ve already seen both small and large players having to renegotiate the terms of their loans at great cost, during what is already a troubled time for their businesses. It is anticipated that over the next five years, in certain irrigation areas, up to 98% of farms may show a negative net farm income at some stage.
The Western Cape is home to 6 682 commercial and 9 844 smallholder farmers, all of whom depend on water to remain a part of the economy. The gross value added by agriculture, an indicator of all the goods and services produced by the sector, totals R18.6 billion. Export revenue generates R40 billion each year. Agricultural production, processing and related sectors sustain more than 400 000 jobs in the province – accounting for more than 16% of all people employed in the Western Cape. The Western Cape produces around half of South Africa’s total agricultural exports; therefor the sector’s importance in the national and provincial economies cannot be overstated.
The sector is cognisant of the important role it plays in the economy and in job creation. Farmers have had to change the way they do things as a result of water scarcity. They have to choose which crops to replant, and in some cases, they’re pulling out the ones they can’t water or are simply letting them die. Where possible, others are diversifying their crops and using conservation agriculture, which is beginning to show good results.
Despite how difficult this period has been for farmers, they’ve also stepped up to help the City of Cape Town ensure supply for its citizens and for this they need to be thanked. Agriculture is doing all it can to alleviate the short-term crisis we are all facing by sharing its allocations and by staving off as many job losses as possible in the sector. In collaboration with the farming community of the Elgin-Grabouw valley, water from private farm dams is being diverted into the City of Cape Town’s supply system, creating an additional 67 million litres of water per day.
This drought has not discriminated in its impact. Until augmentation schemes come online and good rains come, all sectors of the economy and all residents of our province need to share and preserve the limited amounts of water we have available to us all. When jobs are lost, it is a fellow resident whose family suffers. We need to do all that we can to save water and to save jobs, across all sectors. This drought is not an “us and them” problem – it’s an “us” problem.